By David McLaughlin and Lydia Mulvany
The U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into allegations that chicken processors, including Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. and Sanderson Farms Inc., conspired to fix prices.
Prosecutors disclosed the grand jury probe in a court filing Friday in Chicago, where civil lawsuits against more than a dozen companies in the industry are pending. Tyson, Pilgrim’s and Sanderson alone control almost half of the U.S. chicken market.
The investigation significantly escalates pressure on the poultry processors, which have been fighting price-fixing allegations by consumers, distributors, grocery chains and food companies, including Conagra Brands Inc. and Kraft Heinz Co.
Tyson closed down 1.1% to $79.97 in New York, while Pilgrim’s settled down 1.3% to $25.18 and Sanderson dropped 2.2% to $131.03. Brazil’s JBS SA, which owns a controlling stake in Pilgrim’s, settled up 0.5% to 21.90 reais in Sao Paulo.
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment. Prosecutors intervened in the civil litigation to ask the court to suspend for six months depositions of the chicken processors’ current and former employees. Tyson said it was notified on April 26 that plaintiffs in the civil cases had received a subpoena from the Justice Department.
“We are aware of the Department of Justice’s request, which does not change our view that there is simply no merit to the allegations that Tyson Foods colluded with competitors,” Gary Mickelson, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “We remain committed to vigorously defending ourselves against these baseless allegations.”
Sanderson Farms Chief Financial Officer Mike Cockrell said the company hasn’t received a subpoena. “The company continues to believe the civil plaintiffs’ claims as to Sanderson Farms are wholly without merit, and we are committed to defending the case vigorously,” Cockrell said in an emailed statement.
Pilgrim’s Pride didn’t immediately respond to a request Tuesday seeking comment on the criminal probe.
The poultry processors are accused in the civil lawsuits of colluding to increase prices for broiler chickens. The companies allegedly reduced the supply of broiler chickens and then manipulated prices on a weekly benchmark compiled by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, according to court papers.